Crash Course: Postwar Kurosawa

A while back I picked up my copy of Criterion’s Eclipse boxed set of the First Films of Akira Kurosawa and went through and analyzed each of those four films: Sanshiro Sugata, The Most Beautiful, Sanshiro Sugata Part II, and The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail.  These movies were… interesting.  None of them were great films by any means, in fact I’d hesitate to call most of them “good,” but considering the circumstances under which they were made it was pretty remarkable that they got made at all.  In addition to Kurosawa’s own inexperience, the films had to contend with a wartime economy, military censorship, and demands for propagandistic content.  Overall, those four movies showed a young filmmaker in his early stages honing his skills and developing into a professional if not an artist.  However, my work was not done.  There’s another Kurosawa boxed set that had been sitting on my shelf unwatched: an earlier Eclipse set called Postwar Kurosawa which included five films made by Kurosawa shortly after the war, including three films made before his international breakthrough with Rashomon.

No Regrets for Our Youth (1946)

Kurosawa’s first post-war effort was a topical drama called No Regrets for Our Youth, which was about a group of young people who resisted the patriotic fervor of their surroundings through the war years.  The film focuses on a woman named Yukie (that she’s a woman is noteworthy as this and The Most Beautiful are the only Kurosawa movie with a female protagonist) over the course of a rather tumultuous decade and the fallout she encounters for holding liberal views in the wake of nationalist militarism.  In these early postwar years Kurosawa had to answer to a new censorship regime, that of the Allied Occupation Force, and it doesn’t take a whole lot of guessing to see why this story would appeal to their interests.  I do not, however, get the impression that Kurosawa was ordered to make this as propaganda.  I’m sure that if he had wanted to make an innocuous entertainment he could have, instead he was tackling the politics of the day head on in a way that he mostly wouldn’t later on in his career.  If the censors had any negative effect on the production it was probably to force Kurosawa to sand out a few of the story’s nuances and make him lay his message on a little thick in order to make it abundantly clear whose side he was on.

From a merely technical level this is clearly a step up from what Kurosawa was able to do during the war years.  The movie runs a full 110 minutes long, which is short by the standard of the director’s later films, but which is still a good half hour longer than his previous works.  The sets and costumes are also clearly a little more expensive, but more important is that this is a story with a lot more scope and ambition than anything he had attempted before.  I would like to say that the end of the war was all it took to turn Kurosawa into a master filmmaker and that this marked the beginning of his “classic” period, but that’s just not the case.  Instead what we see here is a pretty standard evolution of what we saw in the last boxed set.  Still, this is a good film set in an interesting time period and its box office success (it apparently sparked something of a catchphrase in postwar Japan where people were saying “no regrets for…” all sorts of things) almost certainly helped his career along as well.

*** out of Four

One Wonderful Sunday (1947)

Kurosawa’s second post-war effort (unless you count a collaborative oddity called Those Who Make Tomorrow, which Kurosawa would later shun) was One Wonderful Sunday, a smaller scale and more intimate work than No Regrets for Our Youth. The film focuses on Yuzo (Isao Numasaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), a couple of young lovers who want to get married once they have a little more money but can’t at the moment because of the post-war economy. The film follows them over the course of a single day, a not so wonderful Sunday, which is their only day off. From here the film sort of takes on the “two lovers talk for a day while walking through a city” formula that Richard Linklater would use to such great effect in his “Before” trilogy, but there the focus is less on the couple and more on their surroundings. Post-war Tokyo is still bombed out, filled with orphans, and in some ways run by black-market gangsters who make things even more difficult than they have to be. As the couple goes through the movie they discuss their hopes and dreams and you do get the feeling that they can “make it” even as they constantly have the carpet pulled out from under them.

The focus the film has on the struggles of life in a post-war Axis city immediately recalls the neo-realist films that were being made in Italy around the same time as this, and I do think this was intentional. However, there are some clear stylistic differences. The film is not using non-actors for one thing, and its message is less overtly socialistic. What really sets it apart from those films is its finale, which breaks the fourth wall in a way that I don’t believe Kurosawa ever tried to do again. In this scene Kurosawa does something unusual with music and ends with one of the characters making an earnest plea directly to camera, a move that is somewhat reminiscent to a similar moment in Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Kurosawa had intended this to be a moment where audiences would sort of interact with the screen, but this didn’t really happen and Kurosawa ultimately viewed the experiment as a failure. The rest of the film isn’t necessarily great, Kurosawa lays the pathos on a bit too thick and doesn’t really let you get to know much about the characters aside from the fact that they’re ordinary and likable, but it is still worth seeing if only for the glimpses of post-war Tokyo and to see Kurosawa’s skills continue to bud.

*** out of Four

Scandal (1950)

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa made two movies: Rashomon and Scandal. One of those movies became an international sensation, solidified Kurosawa as a world-class talent, and is considered an all-time classic today. The other one is Scandal. Scandal certainly isn’t a bad movie but it’s definitely not a film of the caliber one would expect from such an accomplished director. The film is largely about a painter who is falsely reported to be having an affair with a popular singer by a tabloid after he’s photographed visiting her in a hotel room. Angry about the ensuing scandal he decides to sue the tabloid and hires a down on his luck lawyer to represent him. I would say that the idea of an expose of tabloid culture was a fresher idea in 1950 than it is today but it really isn’t. We saw similar subject matter covered in Hollywood movies in the 30s… actually, come to think about it a lot of the beats in this movie are straight out of the Frank Capera playbook in a number of ways. When the down on his luck lawyer shows up the movie really plays into the melodrama in ways that will not be to everyone’s taste. Still, this is interesting as a sort of odd departure within Kurosawa’s filmography. It’s a movie that’s so odd that it has a subdued performance from Toshiro Mifune and a super broad performance from Takashi Shimura.

*** out of Four

The Idiot (1951)

Akira Kurosawa was on top of the world when Rashomon opened and all eyes were on his next project.  I’m not exactly sure when Kurosawa went into production on his follow-up film The Idiot or how much that film’s success in the West influenced Shochiku Studio’s decision to let him make his dream project of adapting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot into a modern Japanese context, but the final film reeks of over-ambitious sophomore slump.  Before I get too deep into calling this movie a failure I should probably note that the movie as it was released and as it exists now is heavily compromised.  Kurosawa initially envisioned the film would be released in two parts with a collective running time of 265 minutes but after this cut was poorly received by a test audience the studio panicked and demanded that the film be cut down to a single 166 minute project.  The missing footage has been lost and there are hints here that if this missing hour and forty minutes could be found it may well be a relevatory discovery on a par with finding the missing footage from The Magnificent Ambersons.  As it stands The Idiot is not without its merits but it is definitely flawed.

In the first fifteen minutes or so I suspected that the way the film was cut down was going to be really choppy because the film was using a surprising number of title cards to forward the story, but they quit doing that after a little while the film does at least look fairly coherent.  I suspect (and this is sheer conjecture, I haven’t done any research on this or anything) that a lot of what’s missing in this cut of the movie are sub-plots which may not have directly influenced the primary story but which may have fleshed out the themes and put the story into a different context.  This seems like a mistake because the love triangle that the film chooses to focus on, when removed from that context, doesn’t really feel like it needs 166 minutes to play out.  By being shorter the film feels longer and the film’s psychology never really feels fully formed.  Visually the film holds up a lot better.  Kurosawa keenly decided to set the film at winter and make snow a major part of its backdrop, which makes sense given the Russian source material and the performances also hold up pretty well too.  I guess this is just one of those scarred projects that you don’t really feel is fair to judge.  I wouldn’t recommend the film to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Kurosawa completest, but it’s worth seeing if you’re a student of his work.

**1/2 out of Four

I Live in Fear (1955)

The last film in this eclipse set was a movie made in a very different period of Kurosawa’s career.  By 1955 Kurosawa’s reputation as a master filmmaker was already pretty firmly in place and he was just coming off making his most famous film Seven Samurai.  It is perhaps fitting that the last movie of the “Post-War Kurosawa” box would be a film that was made towards the end of what would be made about ten years after the end of the war and deal with the most impactful moment of the war on the Japanese mindset: the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  The film concerns an old man who has become fixated on the threat of nuclear holocaust and is trying to sell off his factory and move his entire family to Brazil because he believes that will be the only safe place on Earth for some reason.  His grown children are not so fond of this idea and are suing to have him declared incompetent to run the family’s money.  The old man is actually played by a nearly unrecognizable Toshiro Mifune under quite a bit of makeup and Kurosawa’s other regular Takashi Shimura is also present as the arbitrator assigned to his case but that sub-plot is probably the weakest element of the film, as it’s a framing story that loses its usefulness as the movie goes on.  This is perhaps a movie that’s more interesting now than it would have been at the time.  What was once perhaps easy to see as a slightly on the nose exploration of a psychological undercurrent now seems like a fascinating insight into a culture’s psyche.  It is, however, certainly second tier Kurosawa and given that it was made later into his career than some of the other movies in the box it’s harder to simply write this off as a mere stepping stone.

***1/2 out of Five

In Conclusion

This is indeed a fascinating box set both historically and thematically.  The five films here not only show Kurosawa as he develops into the world-class filmmaker but also focuses in on the way he chose to look at the struggles Japan was going through in the wake of their post-war reconstruction.  Over the course of the set we see Kurosawa go from being a young upstart making his own riffs on Italian Neo-Realism to trying on certain Hollywood styles and finally trying to find ways to address domestic social problems while being a director the whole world was watching.  Granted, there is a reason why these particular movies are relegated to an Eclipse box rather than getting Criterion releases of their own.  Thematically and chronologically Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru could have easily fit in with these movies, but they are better works and have individual releases for a reason.  Still, they’re definitely must-sees for hard core Kurosawa fans, and all have their interesting moments for the more casual fans as well.

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